Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"I'm Not Here to Sell Drugs" - Then Why Use Company Provided "Correct" Slides?

In October, 2010, we discussed a series of reports by Pro Publica and multiple other respected news organizations about payments by seven pharmaceutical companies to thousands of doctors.  Industry often claims that they only pay the best and the brightest physicians and academics to provide education relevant to their products.  However, the ProPublica et al report suggested that they mainly recruited physicians who already showed their favor to their products by prescribing them often, but soothed their consciences by dubbing them "thought leaders" or "key opinion leaders."  While some of the physicians were well-known academics, others had notably blemished records. 

Since then, news media around the US have looked into interactions among local physicians and academic medical institutions and the seven pharmaceutical companies.  In November, 2010, here we discussed cases that suggested that pharmaceutical companies like physician speakers because they are more "believable" than pharmaceutical representatives, and choose physicians who already are prolific prescribers of the drug to be promoted, and that suggested that some physicians realized that speaking for pharmaceutical companies influenced their own prescribing.

Since then, more investigations of local physicians' interactions with pharmaceutical companies have appeared that reinforced contrasts between rationalizations that physicians and drug companies use to support continued payments for "drug talks," and what these talks are really about.

"Leaders in Their Field" vs Sanctions and Crimes

 Many pharmaceutical (and other health care corporations) have repeated the mantra that the physicians they hire to give talks are the best and the brightest.  The physicians who give the talks sometimes get to believe this.  For example, a ProPublica follow-up report[1] on discrepancies between data the pharmaceutical companies put on the web and gave to state regulators noted:
Pfizer, for example, told the state it paid Dr. Randy Schapiro $1,770 last year. But on the firm’s website, it reported spending $43,827 on him in the second half of 2009 alone.
It then quoted Dr Schapiro:
Schapiro said the doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies are 'leaders in their fields,' and patients should want to see their physician among them. 'If their doctor is not on the list,' he said, 'maybe they should look for a different doctor.'

On the other hand, several of the local news articles focused on physicians who were paid drug company speakers despite having chequered backgrounds, shall we say. In the Elmira Star Gazette[2]:
Tulio Ortega, a Rochester psychiatrist who made $144,548 from Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca for speaking to groups of peers during the last two years - was put of [sic] probation for two years in 2008 and ordered to pay a $7,500 fine after being sanctioned for negligence and incompetence.
Lilly also paid Yonkers physician Ali Sherzoy $4,334 in the first two quarter of this year, even though he had his license suspended in New York and New Jersey earlier this year after pleading guilty to a count of criminal sexual contact in 2008.

Sherzoy told ProPublica the incident involted his family's nanny and had nothing to do with his ability to practice medicine.

Other New York doctors were sanctioned for incidents ranging from deficiencies in handling controlled substances to being convicted of tax evasion.

Another article by the same author[3] noted two more cases:
In 1991, Johnson City doctor Louis Mateya was charged with professional misconduct after a 22-year-old woman accused him of unzipping his pants and fondling himself during an examination.

Mateya admitted guilt to the charge. The State Board for Professional Medical Conduct suspended his license for two months, followed by a 58-month probationary period, during which he was monitored by a psychiatrist and a health professional selected by the board.

During the last nine months of 2009, GlaxoSmithKline paid Mateya, an internist at United Health Services, $1,750 to speak on behalf of Lovaza, Glaxo's prescription omega 3 fish oil, according to an e-mail from a United Health Services spokeswoman.

A second Southern Tier physician, Robert Douenias, of Corning, was also paid by Glaxo: $20,000 during the same time frame to deliver speeches, even though he received sanctions in 1992.

According to the Office for Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) records, Douenias lied about a previous criminal conviction on his application for a New York medical license. He received a censure and reprimand from the OPMC, was ordered to perform 200 hours of public service and was placed on probation for two years. Douenias said on his application he had never been convicted of a crime in any state or country, even though he had a previous conviction, according to OPMC records.

Note that the original ProPublica reporting from their database emphasized cases of physicians paid to speak by pharmaceutical companies who also had been sanctioned by medical boards or the criminal justice system (see post here).

Although drug marketers like to tell physicians they are selected as "thought leaders" because of their brilliance, it appears that the selection of such "key opinion leaders" is not necessarily based on sterling character.

"I'm Not There to Sell a Drug," But Then Why Use the Company's Slides?

A number of the reports featured physicians who asserted their independence, at least from marketing goals. 

For example, as reported by the Duluth (MN) News Tribune[4],
A Duluth psychiatrist has received more than $525,000 since 2002 in payments from pharmaceutical companies, far more than any other Northland doctor, an analysis by the News Tribune shows.

Dr. Tracy Tomac of St. Luke’s hospital was paid by the companies to give presentations on health and drug issues.

'I’m there as an educator and resource,' she said. 'I’m not in business to do a sales pitch. I’m not a salesperson.'

In 2007, [Dr] Tomac said her presentations included content that was screened and approved by the FDA,....

However, other reporting suggested that content "screened and approved by the FDA" was content provided by the pharmaceutical companies.

For example, The Tennessean noted[5]:
Dr. Jan Brandes heads the Nashville Neuroscience Group, a clinic that's now part of Nashville-based Saint Thomas Health Services. She made $111,150 in outside income over the past two years, largely in speaker fees paid by drug company GlaxoSmithKline, which markets a wide array of brand-name drugs, literally from A to Z.

Dr Brandes also asserted,
'The real point is I'm not there to sell a drug,' Brandes said. 'I'm there to interpret trial results, talk about disease states and help physicians understand where this research might fit in the context of their practice.'

Most drug companies now require physicians to use the company's slides and presentations if they pay them to speak at an event. The industry says that is to ensure that all U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules are met and that physicians don't wander off into discussing uses for a particular product that haven't been approved by regulators.

Also, an article in the Alexandria (VA) Gazette Packet[6] noted:

Whistleblower lawsuits filed in recent years have accused firms of using doctors to push pills for unapproved uses during dinnertime talks, prompting at least 10 firms to settle cases for nearly $7 billion in the last three years. Since that time, pharmaceutical companies have tightened control over what happens during presentations given on their dime. Last year, for example, GlaxoSmithKline instituted a new policy prohibiting doctors from using their own slides during presentations. Starting in 2010, all doctors giving speeches sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline must use slides presented by the pharmaceutical company in the order specified.

'We want to make sure that everything is correct,' said Mary Anne Rhyne, a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline. 'The best way to do that is to have our team prepare the slide.'
Note that Dr Brandes above was paid mainly by GlaxoSmithKline, who presumably also provided all her slides and made sure that everything she said was "correct," at least in terms of what GlaxoSmithKline thought was correct.

And one more example per MyFoxAtlanta[7]:
Some of Georgia's highest paid physicians? .... and Roswell psychiatrist Dr. Michael Banov: over $68,000, also from Lilly.
Dr Banov asserted:
We don't sell medications. We simply educate physicians about data, and they make their own mind up.
Banov says, the drug company - not him - creates the materials used in his speeches, and he says there's a reason for that.

'We are only able to present the data. We're not able to present our personal opinions. Our personal preferences, how we use the medication off label. any of that. So we're held to a very tight standard by the FDA,' said Banov.
Drug companies may say they make their paid physician speakers use slides provided by the company to prevent them from talking about "off-label" uses.  However, there is no reason for a physician-educator not to talk about "off-label" uses, and physicians can prescribe any legal drug for whatever purpose they see fit, whether or not the drug is on or "off label." 

But drug companies are prohibited by law from promoting off-label uses.  Requiring physicians to use drug companies' slides and preventing them from talking about "off-label" uses demonstrates that the physicians are functioning as marketers, not educators. 


As local reporters look into more cases, it becomes increasingly clear that up to now, pharmaceutical companies have been none too fussy about which physicians they pay to speak about their products. It is self-serving, but inaccurate for both sets of parties to assert that the companies choose only the "best and the brightest." 

Furthermore, it has now become glaringly obvious that the purpose of "drug talks" is, well, to sell drugs.  Some physicians paid by drug companies to speak may bluster about their independence, but if they are using company provided slides, who can deny they are influenced  by the company.  Furthermore, when companies insist not merely on providing slides, but on ensuring that "everything is correct," then it is clear that it is the companies' talks that the physicians are giving.  Physicians giving company talks cannot be speaking independently, and hence must be regarded as company sales personnel, whose disguises as independent doctors or medical academics are now in tatters.

Doctors who still choose to go to "drug talks" should have no illusions that they are being exposed to anything other than marketing.  Thus, I urge my colleagues to forgo the nice meals and the company prepared "correct" slides, and spend the time trying to more critically assess the clinical evidence. 


1.  Ornstein C, Weber T. In Minnesota, drug company reports of payments to doctors arrive riddled with mistakes.  ProPublica, Dec 10, 2010.  Link here.
2. Hunter J. Rochester psychiatrist, sanctioned for incompetence, made $144K from drug companies. Elmira Star-Gazette, Dec 4, 2010.
3. Hunter J. Despite sanctions, physicians hired as drug company pitchmen. PressConnects.com, Dec 4, 2010. Link here.
4. Stahl B. Duluth doctor denies payments from drug companies sway decisions.  Duluth News Tribune, Dec 20, 2010.  Link here.
5. Ward G. They say they prescribe based on patients, not Big Pharma. Tennessean, Dec 19, 2010. Link here.
6. Pope ML. Conflict of interest? - Alexandria doctors receive thousands of dollars from Big Pharma.  Alexandia Gazette Packet, Jan 13, 2010.  Link here.
7. Galvin B. Health watch: doctors and drug companies. MyFoxAtlanta, Dec 29, 2010. Link here.

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